Your Write Turn – Taking Stock of Yourself by Jeffrey K. Walker

Reading Jeffrey K. Walker’s CV I discovered many surprises. I knew he’d been in the military and is a lawyer, but he’s also had top secret security clearance, was a senior advisor working on a US Government funded project to build the capacity of the Iraqi national criminal justice system, and was a Judge Advocate in the United States Air Force. His professional writings include titles like “Strategic Targeting and International Law: The Ambiguity of Law Meets the Reality of a Single- Superpower World.” And he was also a B-52 navigator/bombardier. Today, he’s sharing an article he wrote a while back on what it takes to write fiction as a career. Over to you, Jeff.

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I got a lot of traffic on a post I did two weeks ago about new careers after 50. Since my own newest career is writing, I thought I’d follow-up by talking about this crazy idea of becoming an author at the wizened age of 50 or (gasp!) even older. Kids these days…

The Font of All Knowledge regarding aging, the American Association of Retired Persons, says there were 108.7 million Americans older than 50 in 2014—and there are more than that now. Of that 108.7+ million, about 80% think they have a book in them. I’d cut that by a factor of ten to get to those who may undertake writing a book one day. So for those 8.7+ million of you dying to put pen to paper—”pen to paper,” how quaint!—I have a few things I’ve learned along the way that I’ll share.

It doesn’t really matter whether you’re fully retired, working part-time, or still pulling fifty-hour weeks at The Day Job. Becoming a writer really just requires saying, “I’m a writer.” And then actually writing something. That, too.

You’ll be shocked how hard it is to say something that simple… or at least say it while sober in respectable company. Sometimes, it’s hard to say it even to your own family. And on your worst writing days, saying it to yourself is hardest of all. Like every new writer who ever lived, you’ll feel like an impostor. This Impostor Syndrome lasts until you hold that first published book in your flop-sweaty hands. And it then recurs with each subsequent book project. It’s a neurosis to be managed, not eliminated.

The best place to start your writing career is with a personal inventory. This consists of several components:

  • Motivation
    • Time
    • Finances
    • Self-discipline
    • Emotional State
    • Physical State
    • Support
    • Skills

Let’s look at each of these in more detail.

Motivation

This isn’t as obvious as it seems. Why do you want to write a book? There really isn’t a wrong answer, but you need to honestly assess your objectives in taking up writing because that informs much of what follows. Do you want to write a compelling memoir for wholly personal reasons? A family history for your children and relatives? A swashbuckling historical adventure you’ve been noodling over in your head for years? An artsy and innovative high-brow novel? A non-fiction book about a topic in which you have special expertise? Or straight-up commercial fiction in the thriller or romance or mystery genre? All are equally valid reasons. And you may be motivated by multiple desires.

Not insignificantly, do you want to make enough money from your writing to replace all or part of your income from The Day Job? To supplement your retirement income? Or to cover the costs of producing and marketing your book? Let’s be clear about earning money from your writing.

When you inevitably run into a self-identified writer who claims, “Oh, no, no, no! My art is above base considerations of filthy lucre,” punch this individual in the face and move on. You can omit the punch, if you fear prosecution. This insufferable auteur-type has nothing to teach you and will guilt you about wanting to make money from your intellectual property. There’s also a high probability this person’s writing is unreadably self-indulgent.

Time

Ahh, Time! That most precious of resources! And I’ll stop there before I go all poetic. When I first said, “My name is Jeff and I’m a writer,” I had the dual advantages of the financial resources and the spousal tolerance to spend a year just writing fiction. I managed to produce all of one novel and most of another in that year. Once that year was over, however, I had to return to Actual Paid Employment, taking on a growing number of hours of legal consulting work. My third novel took almost two years—there’s a definite correlation there.

If you’re fully retired from The Day Job, you probably have more time on your hands than you ever expected or currently want, so your available writing time is extensive. On the other hand, if you’re still working full-time, don’t despair. The question for you is what time can you carve out for writing? You should approach calendaring and protecting your writing time the way your investment advisor tells you to save for retirement—pay yourself first. Schedule writing time, announce it to your family and friends, and then guard it like a junkyard dog. Also, develop an immunity to the indulgent little smiles and nods you’ll get from people when you tell them it’s your “writing time.”

Most writers I know set aside time during the same part of the day, with the majority preferring mornings. I know a few who swear their most productive time is late at night. Having taken to heart F. Scott Fitzgerald’s admonition about the dark night of the soul, I’m decidedly a morning writer.

Finances 

If you have a comfortable pension, social security, and/or 401(k) income [or whatever retirement savings mechanism your country offers], this is easy beans. If you’re somewhat younger and/or somewhat poorer, there will be trade-offs. There are two components to your financial inventory: the money you need to keep body and soul together and the budget for your book. Even in this day of self-publishing that’s as easy as hitting the send button on a Kindle file, unless you’re impervious to embarrassment and have no concern over making sales, your book is going to need some capital investment. (I have an entire blog on book budgeting scheduled in the near future.)

Self-Discipline

You must honestly assess your level of self-discipline. Generally, your spouse or significant other will be more than happy to help with this. It’s likely he or she has already rendered an opinion.

The most important thing separating people who just want to say, “I’m a writer” (usually spoken with a Manhattan and a cigarette) from those who actually want to do writing, is the self-discipline they bring to the task. There is only one way to make that stack of manuscript pages get thicker—writing them one word, one sentence, and one paragraph at a time. As the always sage and seldom sober Papa Hemingway taught us, “All you have to do is right one true sentence. Write the truest sentence you know.” Then write another one.

There are lots of techniques and tricks to keep your forward momentum—I’ll write about some of those in a future post, too—but there’s no substitute for grit, for the sticktoitiveness that will muscle you through your first agonizing draft. Self-discipline is also the only known preventative cure for writer’s block. That and a lot of bourbon.

So give yourself some time for a mano a mano with that person in the mirror. If you’re somewhat certain you can handle the delayed gratification of creating a 120,000-word manuscript and then putting it through half a dozen (or more) vicious edits and revisions, then welcome to the writer’s tribe. If not, you may want to consider blogging or podcasting instead. Or maybe stick to golf.

Emotional State

I don’t want to sound all New Agey and Group Huggy about this, but writing does require a deep well of emotional reserves. No matter how successful your prior professional life may have been, you’re exposing yourself to a whole new world of doubts, criticisms, inadequacies, and general neuroses when you embark on your new writing career. Remember there will be no mediation between your literary creations and the very judgmental reading public. It’s all yours and you’re hanging out there naked, protected only by the words you’ve written.

In addition, can you keep yourself emotionally bounded by realistic expectations? You’re unlikely to become fantastically rich or land a guest spot on a late-night talk show. The best way to ground your expectations is through honest introspective analysis at the “Motivation” step of this personal inventory. There’s a reason that one is first.

On the other hand, there is no joy like the elation of positive reviews, encouraging comments from other writers, or sales reports that prove people have spent their hard-earned money on your book.

Physical State

Since I’m talking to people over 50, let me caution against deluding yourself about the physicality of writing. When I was a 19-year-old college student, I could sit at a typewriter for 12 or 14 hours and pound out that overdue research paper. Not so easy four decades later. For me, there’s eyestrain, shoulder pain, a sore lower back, and mental fogginess that kicks in after a few hours of intense writing. It’s not a good idea to plan your writing life around marathon sessions. And that loops right back to time and self-discipline. That’s not to say there won’t be random days when you’re completely Lost In Storyland and the words are coming in a flood. On those glorious and rare days, write until you drop. Then take 1000 mg of ibuprofen and a few shots of brown liquor.

Support

How much support can you expect from those around you? First and foremost, you need to have The Writing Talk with your spouse or significant other. The reality is you’re going to disappear behind a closed door for long stretches of time. You’re going to need agreement to be left alone. (See, supra, protecting your writing time.) By happenstance, I married a woman who is both very supportive of my writing and—double bonus!—an outstanding editor. (I’ll talk more about our “family business” approach to writing in a future blog.) My wife, Kay-Kay, and I also have three children and a couple of grandchildren. You need to factor them into the equation, too. (More on my adult kids’ role in the “family business” later, too.)

Skills

I’m an attorney by training, so I’ve spent most of my adult life writing professionally. You simply can’t avoid it if you’re making a living at the bar. I can’t count the number of times someone’s asked me, usually at some writer’s conference, “Oh, so you’re new to writing?” Well, no, I’m not. I’m a new novelist, but I’ve been a professional writer for years.

What I’ve long carried in my toolbox is a thorough knowledge of and years of experience in the mechanics of writing English prose. And the importance of that is not to be gainsaid. It’s often remarked in writing workshops, “Know the rules before you choose to break them.” I came in knowing the rules, so I feel entitled to break them when necessary. 

If you consider yourself a weak or awkward writer, you’ll need to begin farther upstream.

If your mechanics aren’t solid, best start at the local university, community college, or writing center to sharpen your skates. I caution against jumping into creative writing as a means of learning basic grammar, punctuation, and elements of style. That will only undermine your self-discipline and exacerbate your Impostor Syndrome. 

Louise Aronson, author of the book “Elderhood,” bemoans that tendency in American culture to “talk about the bads of old age and not the goods.” The five decades or more you’ve spent on this earth prior to jumping into authorship are a rich storehouse of resources and skills to help you succeed as a writer-entrepreneur. There is no such thing as wasted time to a writer–everything is grist for the word mill.

If your kids and grandkids routinely roll their eyes and beg you not to tell that same story again, you may have well-developed storytelling skills. (Hey, at least they remember them, right?) And being a working writer extends well beyond putting words on paper. Even if you’re picked up with a juicy contract by one of the Big Five publishing houses, unless your last name ends with King or Gabaldon or Grisham, most of the marketing for your book is going to fall on your shoulders. You may have deep prior skills in that area. Public speaking is an important part of any author’s life—book club chats, library presentations, book signings, school visits, and more. If nothing else, you’ve lived long enough to work through your fears and know the value of sticking to a long-term project with a difficult but achievable goal. 

None of this is intended to discourage you from your new career as a writer. Rather, it’s meant to give you some ideas for approaching your new writerly life with a clear eye and well-grounded expectations. But the payoff can be enormous—and not necessarily in dollars. Although dollars are nice. It’s in the process of creating something beautiful and moving and lasting that will survive long after you’re gone. And that’s priceless.

Jeffrey K. Walker writes historical fiction. His award-winning Sweet Wine of Youth trilogy explores World War One and its aftermath. The trilogy includes: None of Us the Same, Truly Are the Free, and No Hero’s Welcome.

DON’T MISS OTHER POSTS ON READING & WRITING HISTORICAL FICTION.  FOLLOW A WRITER OF HISTORY

M.K. Tod writes historical fiction. Her latest novel, PARIS IN RUINS, is available on Amazon USAmazon CanadaKobo, and Barnes&Noble. An earlier novel, TIME AND REGRET was published by Lake Union. Mary’s other novels, LIES TOLD IN SILENCE and UNRAVELLED are available from AmazonNookKoboGoogle Play and iTunes. She can be contacted on FacebookTwitter and Goodreads or on her website www.mktod.com.

A Writer’s Inspiration

My grandmother’s second wedding was in October of 1977 when she was seventy-five. Unfortunately, my husband and I were students living in Vancouver at the time with insufficient funds to afford plane tickets for the big event. We sent a telegram with our congratulations in advance – the custom in those days for guests who could not attend – then telephoned my parents’ home at the time when the reception was scheduled in order to talk to the bride and groom.

Imagine us hearing the stunning news that my grandmother had died of a massive heart attack on the way to the church!

Reeling with shock, Ian and I went for a long walk before deciding that I would fly to Toronto that night on the red-eye flight to be with my family, attend my grandmother’s funeral, help deal with condolences and pick up the pieces. Over the years, I’ve come to think of her death with gratitude for how happy she was when it occurred. And I always thought it would make an amazing ending for a story.

However, writers are not always masters of their stories. In my case, it was my son’s friend Ashley, who made the difference. She agreed to read the first draft of Unravelled. She was an ideal reader, an English major and a woman of twenty-five who could give me insights into whether younger women would enjoy the story while at the same time providing useful editorial feedback. Ashley hated the ending.

I still remember her comments, written in large, underlined capital letters “YOU CAN’T LET HER DIE!!! IT’S TOTALLY UNSATISFYING.”

Well, the rest, as they say, is history! Unravelled does not end with a death. Instead it ends with hope. I won’t say anything more in case you decide to give it a try.

DON’T MISS OTHER POSTS ON READING & WRITING HISTORICAL FICTION. FOLLOW A WRITER OF HISTORY (using the widget on the left sidebar)

M.K. Tod writes historical fiction. Her latest novel, TIME AND REGRET was published by Lake Union. Mary’s other novels, LIES TOLD IN SILENCE and UNRAVELLED are available from Amazon, NookKoboGoogle Play and iTunes. She can be contacted on Facebook, Twitter and Goodreads or on her website www.mktod.com.

The Paris Deception by David O. Stewart

As a lawyer, David O. Stewart argued before juries, judges, the U.S. Senate, and the U.S. Supreme Court.  Now, he writes history and historical novels, looking for the people behind the stories, and for the stories that have been missed or misunderstood. In his novel The Paris Deception, he brings to light the aftermath of World War One, the people involved, the wheeling and dealing that set in motion circumstances that continue to affect us today.

History can help us formulate useful questions and prompt warnings about our own times. This is the case with The Paris Deception. Through the characters of President Woodrow Wilson, French Premier Georges Clemenceau, and British Prime Minister David Lloyd George we gain insight on the conflicting values of countries, on the complexities of building peace, and on the weight of great responsibility. We see the United States in its ascendancy, Britain as its empire begins to fade, and the total collapse of Germany.

There have been many WWI novels: stories of families torn apart, the chaos and horror of war, the ineptitude of leaders, the longing for home; stories of intense camaraderie, unfaltering duty and heroism; stories of tragic loss and lives forever and devastatingly altered.

But what do we know about the peace process that followed WWI? Which leaders led the way or blocked the path to some sort of justice? Which borders changed and why? Which new countries were created? Which special interests were served? How did the conditions of peace sow the seeds for WWII and beyond? The Paris Deception is this novel.

I had the privilege of writing a foreword to The Paris Deception, which relaunched yesterday and asked David a few questions about the story.

What or who was the inspiration for your main characters James Fraser and Speed Cook?

Both characters were drawn from history, though they are only dimly recorded. The first book in this series – The Lincoln Deception – begins with a Delphic deathbed disclosure by former Congressman John Bingham of Cadiz, Ohio, to his doctor, concerning the John Wilkes Booth Conspiracy. So I decided that the small-town doctor, James Fraser, who heard that deathbed disclosure would become obsessed with it, and become one of my protagonists. I wanted him to have a co-investigator, which allows different personalities, and different talents, to be applied to the case. I discovered a fascinating contemporary figure, Moses Fleetwood Walker, who came from nearby Steubenville and was the last African-American to play in organized baseball between the 1880s and Jackie Robinson. Walker (the real person) was an aggressive “race man” who challenged the triumphant Jim Crow culture of the era. I thought he would make a fascinating foil and complement, rechristened Speed Cook, to my small-town doctor (James Fraser).

In light of today’s momentous support for Black Lives Matter, what aspects of the treatment of black Americans during World War One stand out for you?

I had a number of opportunities for the story to highlight the terrible wrongs inflicted on African-Americans then – and still today. Speed Cook’s son serves in an all-black unit known as the Harlem Hellfighters, but all the officers had to be white, and the American general staff didn’t want to use these soldiers at all. Consequently, that unit ended up fighting under French army command, and earning high distinction. Cook’s son, Joshua, also falls victim to a racist prosecution for desertion, while Cook himself is working with W.E.B. Du Bois, who came to Paris during the 1919 peace conference to be part of the Pan-African Congress. Finally, I was able to portray President Woodrow Wilson’s racism in private settings. Wilson grew up in Georgia after the Civil War and had the racist attitudes of that time and place, right down to the “darky” jokes he liked to tell.

Weaving real and fictional characters is a challenge for historical fiction authors. Why did you choose the real characters you did choose and how did you preserve authenticity?

The Paris Peace Conference offers a smorgasbord of fabulous historical characters. To give a grounding in the swirling negotiations of the peace conference, the story features cameo appearances by W.E.B. Du Bois, Winston Churchill, Chaim Weizmann, and Mark Sykes (of the hideous Sykes-Picot Treaty that whacked up the Middle East between France and Britain). More fully integrated into the story are marvelous characters like T.E. Lawrence (of Arabia) and French Premier Georges Clemenceau (one of my favorites). Three central characters for the story are President Wilson and two of his aides, the brothers Allen Dulles (future head of the CIA and a spy during World War I) and John Foster Dulles (future Secretary of State and an important figure in the American delegation). In pursuit of authenticity, I studied contemporary photographs of each, listened to voice recordings if they were available, and read contemporary accounts of the impressions they made on people.

Through the fictional characters of The Paris Deception, we also experience the war in flashback, understand the devastation brought about by the Spanish Flu, and feel the agony of having a son go off to war. Beyond being a wonderful story, The Paris Deception is history that is highly relevant for today.

The Paris Deception by David O. Stewart ~~ In the wake of The Great War, the city of Paris unites in jubilant celebration at the arrival of United States President, Woodrow Wilson. But amidst the prospect of peace, Parisians are dying as the Spanish influenza reaches epidemic proportions.

An expert on the deadly illnesses, Dr. Major Jamie Fraser, is called in to advise the president’s own doctor on how best to avoid the deadly disease and discovers, despite Wilson’s robust appearance, the man is frailer than most realize.

While trying to determine the source of Wilson’s maladies, Fraser encounters a man he has not seen for nearly twenty years: Speed Cook–ex-professional ball player and now advocate for Negro rights. Cook is also desperate to save his son Joshua, an army sergeant wrongly accused of desertion.

Pledging to help Cook, Fraser approaches Allen Dulles, an American spy, who is also Wilson’s close aide.

Soon Cook and Fraser’s quest intersects with dramatic events when the French premier, Georges Clemenceau, narrowly survives an assassination attempt, and the Paris Peace Convergence begins to unravel.

When the precarious German government balks at the grim terms of the peace treaty, Cook and Fraser discover that to save Joshua, they must find a way to preserve the fragile treaty, which may be the only barrier standing between Europe and another brutal war.

You can also read about The Lincoln Deception

DON’T MISS OTHER POSTS ON READING & WRITING HISTORICAL FICTION. FOLLOW A WRITER OF HISTORY (using the widget on the left sidebar)

M.K. Tod writes historical fiction. Her latest novel, TIME AND REGRET was published by Lake Union. Mary’s other novels, LIES TOLD IN SILENCE and UNRAVELLED are available from Amazon, NookKoboGoogle Play and iTunes. She can be contacted on Facebook, Twitter and Goodreads or on her website www.mktod.com.